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The Haunting, Mysterious King Raam Brings His Iranian Art-Rock Anthems to the Mercury

If you’ve heard of King Raam, believe the hype. The Teheran-based bandleader, who with the rest of his group plays pseudonymously, is sort of the Iranian Nick Cave. Who is this theatrical, intense Persian-language art-rock singer? He’s in his forties, born in the party city of Bushehr, and has been back and forth to the US several times. He’s collaborated with Johnny Azari and the late Ali Eskandarian, among others. He has a gram account, so it’s certain that the CIA and Mossad know who he is. He and the band are bringing their eclectic, often hauntingly artsy sounds to the Mercury at midnight on August 29; $12 advance tix are still available at the box office, open Tues-Sat from noon to 6 PM.

Iranian music in general tends to be very good and has been for centuries: even pop artists from the 60s and 70s like Googoosh are arguably more interesting and tuneful than their American counterparts. Most of King Raam’s latest album, A Day & a Year, is streaming at Soundcloud along with much of his ominously melodic, often psychedelic back catalog. The band doesn’t waste any time getting off to an powerful start with a slow, foreboding minor-key anthem, Pegasus, bringing to mind similarly brooding global acts like the Russian group Auktyon and Mexican legends Jaguares. The multitracked guitars roar, the keys twinkle uneasily and the drums have a big-room sound: a lot of care and smart production ideas went into this. English translations of the lyrics weren’t available as of press time, but consider that the song is about a winged horse and then do the math.

The moody Closing Credits (Titrazhe Payan), just pensive vocals and simple guitar arpeggios until the final crescendo, bears an even stronger resemblance to Jaguares and that band’s frontman Saul Hernandez‘s solo work. The album’s third track, Tehran has a wistful sway, part folk-rock as the Church might have done it at their peak, part Spottiswoode. The Church resemblance recurs, but more spaciously and sparely, in Distant Tomorrows, featuring guest crooner Makan Ashgevari. The Return follows, with a big, cinematic, rather triumphantly orchestrated sweep: it’s the most stadium rock-oriented track here. Its 70s folk-pop counterpart is Crosswind, one of the later cuts.

Missing Squares has a shuffle groove, surfy reverb guitars and a brass section – another Jaguares soundalike, more or less. A City Without Gates sets the spare quality of Tehran to a more propulsive, even catchier groove, with some of the album’s strongest vocals. The band brings things down with the echoey, dub-tinged piano-based Resurrection and then follows with Salvador, which rises from a rather upbeat, guitar-fueled neo-Motown drive to a swing groove and then pure Lynchian menace.

A Day Will Come is the most gorgeously jangly, bittersweet number on the album – it could be vintage early 70s Al Stewart with better vocals and production. Deja Vu, with its stomping drums, funk tinges and propeller-blade guitars, is a duet with Iranian blues artist Behzad Omrani.  The final cut is the echoey, muted piano ballad Since You’ve Been Gone.

In terms of pure tunefulness, this is one of the half-dozen best rock albums released in 2015. How horribly sad that the citizens of the nation that for centuries was the cultural capital of the world have been forced to literally go underground to enjoy music like this since the fall of the Shah (and he was no picnic either). And what a fantastic thing that artists like King Raam have made their way to the US. If anyone deserves asylum citizenship, it’s this guy and the rest of the guys who play with him.

Meet the Ominous, Phantasmagorical Herbert Bail Orchestra

The Herbert Bail Orchestra work all sorts of influences into their careening, carnivalesque, noir-tinged sound: art-rock, oldtime blues, Celtic balladry, gospel and even funk. Bail plays the role of hoarse oldtime blues shouter, part early Tom Waits, maybe part Rev. Vince Anderson. The band is excellent: banjo, accordion and organ figure heavily and deliciously into their sound. Los Angelenos looking for a fun night out can catch their show tomorrow night, August 23 at 8:30 PM on an awesome triplebill at the Satellite at 1717 Silver Lake Blvd. Blackwater Jukebox open the evening with their edgy southwestern gothic punk, followed by Blac Jesus & the Experimentalists, who shift between creepy noir soul and guitar-fueled hard retro funk. Cover is an absurdly cheap $8.

Herbert Bail’s most recent album, The Future’s In the Past is streaming at Bandcamp. The band also has an intriguing Soundcloud page which offers a more current view of the wide expanse of styles they run through, many of them at once. Their latest single, You Are Beautiful (ok, ugh title, but it’s a good song) rises from a sun-streaked latesummer Britfolk intro to an ecstatic, gospel-fueled peak over a jaunty shuffle beat. Radio Tower  opens with accordion over almost a reggae bounce, with a little unexpected hip-hop flavor. The title track from the most recent album is much the same – imagine Cage the Elephant with a scampering circus-rock groove.

The best song on the page is Take Me Down, a wickedly catchy, broodingly swinging tune that’s part Nick Cave, part Walkabouts and maybe part Grateful Dead. The Big Sound brings back the towering soul/gospel intensity, something akin to how early ELO at their most disturbed might have done it. The Nature of Things succeeds where U2 failed to bridge the gap between vintage Americana and stadium rock.The rest of the playlist includes murky boogie-woogie; a Motown/ragtime mashup; a dirge that wouldn’t be out of place sung by a chain gang; a Mr. Bojangles-ish shuffle; and doomed, string-driven Nick Cave balladry. If you’re in the neighborhood, take a slug of absinthe, put on your dancing shoes and go see these guys.

Mark Sinnis Brings His Gloomy Honkytonk Songs Back to His Old East Village Haunts

One consequence of the brain drain continuing to pour out of this city’s five boroughs is that in order to see some of the best musicians who’ve been priced out by the real estate bubble, you have to go where they are. So it was good to be able to catch longtime downtown NYC presence and charismatic Nashville gothic crooner Mark Sinnis playing a marathon gig at the refreshingly laid-back Mohansic Grill & Lounge in Yorktown Heights, up in Westchester, back in November. The show was like one of those old-fashioned tent revival style C&W extravaganzas from the 1950s, except with just one band, serenading an enthusiastic Saturday night crowd for well over two hours. Sinnis and his group 825 return to his old East Village stomping grounds, upstairs at 2A at 10 PM on Feb 15 as part of impresario/bandleader/genius guitarist Tom Clark‘s weekly Sunday American shindig.

The Yorktown Heights gig was on the back porch of a restaurant overlooking a golf course, not such a strange place to see a band up that way as it might seem. And the band was tremendous. Lead guitarist James “Smokey Chipotle” Brown locked in on some classic honkytonk harmonies with pedal steel player Brian Aspinwall when the two weren’t involved in high-voltage musical banter. Other times, Aspinwall would anchor the sound with high lonesome washes and wails as Senor Chipotle spun from wry hillbilly boogie licks, to eerie David Lynch twang, to chicken-scratch Johnny Cash rhythm or ringing, clanging Bakersfield riffage. Bassist John Goldberg held the rig to the road as drummer Michael Lillard kept the wheels spinning with every classic country shuffle beat ever invented, trumpeter Lee Compton adding both mariachi flair and a mournful, funereal New Orleans touch, often in tandem with a bluesy harmonica player who was new to the band.

Sinnis delivered the songs in his brooding baritone. Much as this band can hold their own with any other classic honkytonk crew out there, what distinguishes his Nashville gothic from, say, Nick Cave, or Roy Orbison, is that he really lets the band cut loose: several of the numbers went on for a solid six or seven minutes, with plenty of time for solos from pretty much everybody in the group. His lyrics mine a classic Americana vernacular full of doom and dread: funeral trains emerging into the dawn, ill-fated relationships, ghosts and faded memories of fleetingly good times now gone forever. And love affairs gone straight to hell, taking shape via slow, opiated dirges, bitter shuffle grooves or grimly romping numbers like one of the centerpieces of the early set, Mistaken for Love.

Many of the night’s hardest-hitting numbers – the angst-fueled funeral train anthem Cold Night in December, the booze-drenched Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three, and It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter – appear on his latest album with this band. Some of the unexpectedly quieter material, strangely enough, was taken from his extensive back catalog with dark art-rock band Ninth House, a unit Sinnis has fronted since the late 90s and has pulled deeper and deeper into Americana in recent years. He also brought out a couple of excellent new songs, one a brooding, manic-depressive bolero, another a morose honkytonk breakup ballad. All this gives you an idea of what to expect this Sunday: classic ideas and riffs updated for the here and now, with an unending gloom. Tom Clark’s Sunday nights at 2A draw a decent crowd and an A-list of NYC Americana talent – Amy Allison played a rare full-band show with LA cult favorite Don Heffington there last week, for example – but deserve an even wider audience and a better night than they have. Sinnis and 825 ought to bring it this Sunday.

The 50 Best Albums of 2014

Of the hundreds of thousands of albums released every year, maybe ten percent of them are worth hearing. That’s about twenty-five thousand albums, possibly a lot more – it’s harder to keep track of the numbers than it was in the previous century. A very ambitious blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe twenty percent of that total. That’s the triage.

A very, very ambitious blogger can hear, at best, maybe ten percent of that small sample, all the way through, at least enough to get the gist of what those few hundred albums are about. So consider this list – and the Best Songs of 2014 and the Best NYC Concerts of 2014 lists here – a celebration of good music released in 2014 or thereabouts rather than anything definitive. Links to listen to each album are included: whenever possible, the link is to an ad-free site like Bandcamp or Soundcloud rather than Spotify. So bookmark this page and come back to enjoy what you might have missed.

Every few years, there’s one album that stands out above all the rest, which transcends genre. This year, that was Big Lazy‘s Don’t Cross Myrtle, a creepy collection of reverb-drenched, Lynchian songs without words and desolate highway themes. Even by the standards of frontman/guitarist Stephen Ulrich’s previous work for film, tv and with this band, he’s never written with more delectable menace. Stream the album via Spotify.

Before the rest of the list kicks in, there are two ringers here from a couple years ago: Great Plains gothic tunesmith Ember Schrag‘s The Sewing Room, a quiet, allusive, disarmingly intense masterpiece (at Bandcamp), and a considerably more ornate and more chromatically-charged release, Philadelphia-based Turkish art-rockers Barakka‘s Uzaklardan (at Reverbnation). Both albums came over the transom too late to be included in the 2012 list here, but each of them is a real gem.

Beyond the choice of Big Lazy as #1, there’s no numerical ranking on this list. For fairness’ sake, the remainder of the fifty are listed in more-or-less chronological order as they first received attention here, without taking release dates into consideration. So the albums at the end aren’t the ass end of the list – they just happened to have been reviewed here at the end of the year. To be clear, the Ministry of Wolves, the last act on this list, are every bit as enjoyable as creepy surf band the Reigning Monarchs, who lead the rest of the parade:

The Reigning Monarchs – Black Sweater Massacre
Marauding crime-surf instrumentals from an unlikely cast of 90s powerpop types. Stream the album via the band’s page

Curtis Eller – How to Make It in Hollywood
Wickedly literate, historically rich, pun-infused and unexpectedly rocking Americana from the charismatic roots music banjoist. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Karla Moheno – Gone to Town
Nobody writes more intriguing noir musical narratives than this inscrutable chanteuse. If Big Lazy hadn’t put out their album this past year, this one would be at the top of the pile with a bullet. Stream the album via Soundcloud

Marissa Nadler – July
Arguably her best album, the atmospheric folk noir chanteuse and storyteller’s lushly enveloping adventure in Pink Floyd-style art-rock. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – The Cat. Not Me
A stormy, brilliantly twisted, angst-fueled, epically orchestrated art-rock album by the French southwestern gothic avatar and Sergio Mendoza collaborator. Stream the album via Spotify

Aram Bajakian – There Were Flowers Also in Hell
Darkly blues-inspired, characteristically eclectic, moody instrumentals by the last great lead guitarist from Lou Reed’s Band. Stream the album via Spotify

Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread
A pensive southern gothic travelogue set to terse Americana rock, arguably as good as Cash’s iconic Black Cadillac album from a few years ago. Stream the album via Spotify

Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here
The lyrically strongest and most musically diverse album yet by this era’s most compelling voice in classic country music. Stream the album via Spotify

The New Mendicants – Into the Lime
A janglefest of gorgeous Britfolk-infused powerpop from Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the Sadies’ Mike Belistky. Stream the album via Spotify

Siach HaSadeh – Song of the Grasses
Slowly unwinding, raptly intense improvisations on classic Jewish cantorial and folk themes from over the centuries. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Son of Skooshny – Mid Century Modern
Mark Breyer achieved cult status in the 90s with powerpop vets Skooshny and continues to write biting, lyrically rich, beautifully jangly songs. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Isle of Klezbos – Live from Brooklyn
A deliriously fun concert recording by the mostly-female, pioneering New York klezmer whirlwind. Stream the album via Bandcamp

New Electric Ride – Balloon Age
Period-perfect, fantastic mid-60s style psychedelic rock in a Dukes of Stratosphear or Love Camp 7 vein. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Baseball Project – 3rd
Catchy, characteristically insightful powerpop, paisley underground and janglerock from Steve Wynn and Peter Buck’s supergroup, rich in diamond lore from across the decades. Stream the album via Spotify

Ichka – Podorozh
Meaning “journey” in Russian. the new album by the Montreal klezmer group blazes through bristling chromatic themes. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Jaro Milko & the Cubalkanics – Cigarros Explosivos
The Firewater lead guitarist’s adventure in psychedelic cumbias comes across as a sort of a Balkan version of Chicha Libre. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Bad Buka -Through the Night
A harder-rocking, more theatrical take on Gogol Bordello-style Slavic punk from these New York guys and girls. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun
Ominously jangly southwestern gothic and paisley underground rock from the Canadian Americana band and the Tragically Hip frontman. Stream the album via the band’s page

Cheetah Chrome – Solo
It took practically twenty years for this searing, intense album by the punk-era guitar icon to see the light of day, but the wait was worth it. Stream the album via Spotify

Andrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of
The cult favorite Americana songwriter plunders the catalog of another similarly literate, frequently creepy Americana act, the Handsome Family, for an insightful and lyrically rich collection of covers. Stream the album via Soundcloud

Guided by Voices – Cool Planet
If the last of the final four albums from the indie powerpop band’s marathon of recording over the last two years is really their swan song, they went out with a bang. Stream the album via Spotify

Golem – Tanz
A wickedly hilarious, blistering mix of edgy punk rock, crazed circus rock and straight-up hotshot klezmer. Stream the album via Spotify

Matt Kanelos – Love Hello
Pensive, allusively lyrical Radiohead-influenced psychedelia and art-rock from the popular NYC jazz and rock keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Spottiswoode – English Dream
Purist, richly arranged, artsy janglerock with psychedelic and Britfolk tinges from the cult favorite lyrical songwriter and bandleader. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Skull Practitioners – ST1
Searing, pummeling, catchy noiserock and riff-driven jams from Steve Wynn lead guitarist Jason Victor’s explosive trio. Stream the album via Bandcamp

HUMANWINE – Fighting Naked
Creepy, menacing, chromatically-fueled narratives from an all-too-plausible, Orwellian nightmare future from the politically spot-on Vermont band. Stream the album via Bandcamp – free download

Amanda Thorpe – Bewitching Me: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg
The riveting Britfolk chanteuse reinvents songs by the Tin Pan Alley figure as noir-inflected janglerock, backed by a stellar NYC band. Stream the album via Spotify

Changing Modes – The Paradox of Traveling Light
Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Wendy Griffiths’ band’s most ornate, intricately crafted art-rock masterpiece, with the occasional departure into punk or powerpop. Stream the album via Soundcloud

The Bakersfield Breakers – In the Studio with the Bakersfield Breakers
These New York surf and twang instrumentalists put their own kick-ass spin on a classic Telecaster-driven sound from the early 60s. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Sometime Boys – Riverbed
One of the most distinctively unique bands on this list, they blend newgrass, country blues, funky rock and Nashville gothic into a spicy, anthemically psychedelic, lyrically intense blend. Stream the album via the band’s page 

The Immigrant Union – Anyway
The Australian band – a Dandy Warhols spinoff – craft deliciously catchy Rickenbacker guitar janglerock. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Bombay Rickey – Cinefonia
The year’s best debut album is by spectacular, intense singer/accordionist Kamala Samkaram’s ornate, intricate, surfy Bollywood-inspired art-rock band. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Hannah Thiem – Brym
Lush, moody, Middle Eastern and Nordic-inspired violin grooves and cinematic soundscapes from Copal‘s dynamic frontwoman/composer. Stream the album via Soundcloud 

The Larch – In Transit
Characteristically urbane, insightfully lyrical, Costello-esque powerpop with searing lead guitar from the highly regarded New York quartet. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The OBNIIIs – Third Time to Harm
The twin guitar-driven Austin garage punks are probably the closest thing we have to Radio Birdman these days. They released two albums this past year, one a sizzling live set, and this studio release which is more psychedelic and every bit as volcanic. Stream the album via Spotify

The Wytches – Annabel Dream Reader
Arguably the darkest album on this list, this harrowing collection mines the desperation of living at the fringes of society, set to scorching, reverb-drenched noir rock. Stream the album via Spotify.

Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons – Rebel Devil Devil Rebel
The Canadian gothic chanteuse returns to her fiery, electric Neil Young-influenced roots with this stampeding effort, driven by guitar great Hugh Pool’s ferocious attack. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Ward White – Ward White Is the Matador
The most intricately literate of all the albums on this list. Nobody writes more intriguing, or menacing, rock narratives than this New York tunesmith. And he’s never rocked harder, either. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Jessie Kilguss – Devastate Me
The title is apt – the NYC folk noir singer/bandleader offers a quietly shattering. impeccably crafted collection of Nashville gothic and paisley underground rock. Stream the album via Spotify

Mesiko – Solar Door
One of the most tunefully eclectic albums on the list, the debut by Norden Bombsight’s David Marshall and Rachael Bell with all-star drummer Ray Rizzo has postpunk, paisley underground, psychedelia and kinetic powerpop, sometimes all in the same song. Stream the album via Bandcamp

O’Death – Out of Hands We Go
A characteristically careening, ominous mix of Nashville gothic, oldtimey, circus rock and noir cabaret from these Americana individualists. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Chuck Prophet – Night Surfer
One of the great lead guitarists in rock, Prophet is also a great tunesmith who spans from psychedelia to janglerock to Americana and powerpop. Stream the album via Spotify

Wounded Buffalo Theory – A Painting of Plans
The New York art-rockers have never sounded more focused, or more intense on this richly ornate, psychedelic collection. Stream the album via the band’s page, free download

Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne – I Line My Days Along Your Weight
A brooding, plaintive and vividly lyrical folk noir masterpiece, Byrne’s tersely evocative lyrics and luminous vocals over a darkly magical web of acoustic textures. Stream the album via Spotify

Jessi Robertson – I Came From the War
Combat is a metaphor for all sorts of angst on the riveting soul and Americana-influenced singer/bandleader’s intricate, atmospheric latest release. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Metropolitan Klezmer – Mazel Means Good Luck
An especially wild live album by this deliciously shapeshifting, latin and reggae-influenced New York Jewish music juggernaut. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Matt Ulery – In the Ivory
The jazz bassist’s lush, rippling compositions blend soaring neoromantic themes, edgy improvisation, cinematic instrumental narratives and frequently haunting interludes. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Jenifer Jackson – TX Sunrise
One of the most diverse songwriters here, she’s done everything from Beatlesque bossa pop to psychedelia to Nashville gothic. This is her deepest and most rewarding dive into Americana, comprising both classic C&W and southwestern gothic. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Mark Sinnis – It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter
A death-obsessed hard honkytonk album from powerful baritone crooner and leader of cult favorite dark rockers Ninth House. Stream the album via Spotify

The Brooklyn What – Minor Problems
The best short album of 2014 has explosive, dynamic guitar duels, a catchy anthemic sensibility, psychedelic intensity and edgy, sarcastic wit. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Robin Aigner – Con Tender
Historically rich, period-perfect, sultry and often hilariously lyrical tunesmithing equally informed by stark southern folk music, vintage blues and oldtimey swing jazz. Stream the album via Bandcamp, free download

The Ministry of Wolves – Happily Ever After
The second album of creepily theatrical art-rock songs based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales by the all-star band of Botanica‘s Paul Wallfisch, Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto from Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds co-founder Mick Harvey. Stream the album via Spotify 

If you’re wondering why there’s hardly anything in the way of jazz or classical music here, that stuff is more likely to be found at this blog’s older sister blog, Lucid Culture.

The Ministry of Wolves Update the Brothers Grimm with Twisted Art-Rock

You could make a case for the Ministry of Wolves as a gothic rock supergroup; or you could take them up a few notches and call them the latest incarnation of the urbane existentialist art-rock that Botanica‘s Paul Wallfisch has mined so memorably since the 90s. Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto are members of the latest edition of Crime & the City Solution; Hacke also did a long stretch in Einsturzende Neubauten. Mick Harvey was a founding member of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds; Wallfisch is the least gothic but most musically defining member of this unlikely and wildly successful pickup band, which first came together to supply a soundtrack to Claudia Bauer’s theatre production Republik der Wolfe. That spectacle was first staged at the Theater Dortmund in Germany, where Wallfisch is artistic director. Its songs use Grimm’s Fairy Tales and most specifically, Anne Sexton’s take on them from her 1971 collection, Transformations, as a stepping-off point. The group released many of the songs from the production earlier this year; their new album, Happily Ever After (streaming at Spotify) includes unreleased material as well as several tracks with lyrics in the original German.

De Picciotto delivers both the English version and a German translation of Sexton’s pointedly sarcastic poem The Gold Key (Der Goldene Schluessel) with counterintuitive brightness over Harvey’s  lingering guitar multitracks and Wallfisch’s ominously reverberating Wurlitzer. It makes a good title theme here and would work just as well for pretty much any horror film. She does the same with a creepy, music box-like version of White Snake Waltz (Die Weisse Schlange). Wallfisch casts Little Red Riding Hood as a Jersey tourist in Manhattan on a Saturday night in a Lou Reed-inspired narrative, over a noisy one-chord jam that’s one part Taxi Driver soundtrack, one part Blind Idiot God.

Hacke narrates a particularly twisted version of the most epic of the previously unreleased tracks here, The 12 Dancing Princesses. The guys in the band shamble through the chilling folk-rock of The Wonderful Musician, “Like a fish on a hook, dancing the dance of death,” Hacke’s banjo adding rustic textures in the background.

Rapunzel gets a lushly angst-fueled, absolutely Lynchian overture in her name, via Wallfisch’s one-man multi-keyboard orchestra. Der Froschkoenig (The Frog Prince), starts as a stately waltz and brings back the undiluted menace of the opening theme. Wallfisch’s piano drives the final cut, Rumpelstilzchen, with a noir boogie riff as it reaches its expected conclusion. You’ll see this here again on the best albums of 2014 page in a couple of days.

Yet Another Gorgeous Album by Spottiswoode

If Spottiswoode never made another album, his place in the art-rock pantheon would be secure. From his days in the 90s fronting Washington, DC’s the Zimmermans to his similarly lyrical but considerably darker, Leonard Cohen-tinged career in New York starting around the turn of the century, multi-instrumentalist baritone crooner Jonathan Spottiswoode has been writing and playing richly arranged, sardonically elegant, angst-fueled songs that span from debauched Tom Waits-ish vignettes to lavishly orchestrated epics. He’s back with yet another good album, English Dream, streaming at Spotify. His snarling, psychedelic, politically-fueled 2012 masterpiece Wild Goosechase Expedition was arguably the high point of his career, a hard act to follow. Smartly, he goes in a completely different direction with this one, focusing more on purist tunesmithing than savage lyrical content – although there’s some of that too, and it’s characteristically choice. The band includes John Young on bass, Tim Vaill on drums, Candace DeBartolo on sax, Kevin Cordt on trumpet, Riley McMahon on guitar and Tony Lauria on keys.

The opening track, Till My Dying Day, sets the stage, a jangly, swaying nocturne with richly layered guitars, piano and melodic bass, rising and falling with lustrous, ambered horns in as it winds out. Spottiswoode’s voice has taken on more gravitas and soul with the years: he’s never sung more effortlessly, and more affectingly, than he does here.

The second track, Golden Apple, sounds like early zeros noir NYC legends DollHouse doing a creepy bolero – it’s a kiss-off anthem. Clear Your Mind is the Byrds as the Church – or for that matter, Marty Willson-Piper solo – might do it. I Didn’t Know I Was So Sad works a steady, vintage Bowie/Ian Hunter piano ballad groove, with hints of flamenco and 60s psychedelia. The title track moves from stark to even darker over a tricky 5/4 rhythm, like Joy Division’s The Eternal reinvented as early 70s Britfolk.

The aptly titled Majesty works a series of titanic swells up from pretty pastoralia. Genius Flower sets an ominous horn chart and Beatlesque chromatics to a staggered, dancing rhythm. With its anxiously fluttery, tremoloing intro, swooping clarinet and elegant electric harpsichord, the moody chamber pop anthem Butterfly might well be the album’s best song. Spottiswoode picks up the pace after that with No Time for Love, its brasslike guitar track and brisk new wave beat evoking the Church at their catchiest circa 1986 or so.

Gorgeously clanging bouzouki mingles with deep autumn orchestral colors on Another Year, a sardonic look at getting stuck on the romantic treadmill. So-called “coming-of’-age” songs usually suck: they tend to romanticize everything, but Dreamer Boy, a bittersweet recollection of middle school-age angst, reaches beyond that for a grandeur that finally peaks with a series of absolutely gorgeous downward runs on the piano. It contrasts with the snidely bluesy Blonde on Blonde sway of Who Were You Baby, a look back at a girl who would have turned out to be poison had she stuck around.

Melancholy Boy blends jazzy horns into tasty major/minor changes and then a long, lush, rippling outro. The album ends up with the gorgeously jangly, high-spirited nouveau-Byrds anthem Sweetest Girl. Much as the era of the big-studio album is pretty much finished, it’s heartwarming to see Spottiswoode still at it, artfully layering all those intricate, tastefully played tracks of bass and drums and guitars and keys and vocals into a majestic, cohesive whole. What else is there to say: as you would expect, it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2014 so far.

Richly Dark, Jangly Rock from Gord Downie & the Sadies

Canadian janglerockers the Sadies have made some great albums both by themselves as well as with Neko Case. Their latest project finds them working a hauntingly propulsive southwestern gothic vein behind Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, who channels a Celtic-tinged, Nick Cave-style desperation on their new album, Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun. The album is streaming at the band’s site; they’re bringing this gorgeously dark stuff to Bowery Ballroom on May 2 at around 10. General admission is $20.

The album’s opening track, Crater motors along on a snarling, catchy garage-punk groove: it’s one of the loudest things this band’s ever done. Travis Good takes a twistingly bluesy guitar solo; “Crater, getting crushed in your dreams,” Downie rages. The second cut, a title track of sorts, is the first of the lingering, backbeat-driven, jangly minor-key desert rock numbers, Downie “working the fugitive dust under the conquering sun.”Los Angeles Times sways more slowly, painting a restless party scenario, Downie frustrated that he can’t cut through a pretentious crowd to get to an intriguing girl. An unexpected, tasty flatpicked acoustic guitar solo takes the song out.

One Good Fast Job picks up the pace, a bristling, minor-key swamp-rock tune. “You sound hard, you sound dope, you sound like you lick your own envelopes,” Downie taunts. It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon opens with an uneasily droning intro and then scampers along with a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre garage-psych ambience. The best song on the album is the ominously reverb-drenched Budget Shoes, fueled by Mike Belitsky’s artfully tumbling, Keith Moon drums, Downie tracing the steps of a couple of desperados “walking through the valley of ghosts,” one with his eyes on the other’s superior footgear.

Downie’s Irish-inflected vocals pair off with the band’s country-tinged jangle on Demand Destruction: “Is this accident ever over anymore?” Downie asks anxiously. They bring in a slow, warmly nocturnal Beggars Banquet ambience with spiky mandolin and flowing organ on Devil Enough before they pick it up with an electric bluegrass drive. I’m Free, Disarray Me goes in a nebulously uneasy Psychedelic Furs direction. The album ends with Saved, a slow, pensive, soul-tinged 6/8 anthem. Pretty much what you would expect from the Sadies, if not necessarily from Downie: not a single substandard song on this, definitely one of the best albums of the year.

Dark, Brooding Menace from Mike Marlin

Dark British rock songwriter Mike Marlin seems to be building a career out of gigs like  supporting Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler of the Jam on UK tour. But Marlin may well be the main attraction at shows like those: the old rake writes good songs. As he tells it, he cut his teeth in the early 80s, inspired by Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Cure, but it wasn’t until the end of the past decade that he dedicated himself exclusively to music. It’s a good thing he did: his new album, Grand Reveal is streaming at his Bandcamp page as is last year’s release, Man on the Ground. You can also grab a free download of the single The Murderer, a gorgeously orchestrated, bitterly understated lament for a dissolute life, from his Soundcloud page.

Marlin turns out to be less new wave than you might expect. Sometimes he goes in a noir cabaret direction, other times completely goth, occasionally looking back to early 70s glam – it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine these songs being fully realized versions of demos he made back in the 80s. His raspy baritone is strong, his worldview cynical and world-weary, his songs catchy and anthemic.”I’m older than I look, younger than I feel,” he snarls on the title track, a slinky, doomed cabaret anthem.

The new album’s best song is the opener, Skull Behind the Skin, building from creepy music-box electric piano to a searing chorus fueled by Johnny Marr-style guitar. Marlin’s deadpan croon and allusive lyrics here could be friendly encouragement to hang out and jam, but turn out to have somewhat different implications.

The most typically new wave track is War to Begin, a study in maintaining a tense, anxious mood, bass rising over a hypnotic, insistent guitar pulse. The poppiest are Forgive Me Yet, with its lively brass section, and Girl on the Roof, which could be Ian Hunter in blithely seductive mode. A couple other ballads bring to mind Nick Cave: Amazing building to a big crescendo, Giving It All Away broodingly contemplating the end. “I hear the saxophone on Baker Street on endless repeat, and I don’t mind, and I’ll hear it again,” Marlin accepts with unexpected grace.

“The neighbor’s cat comes into the garden to hunt birds; he never catches them or hurts them, which is more than I can say about you,” Marlin intones on the nonchalantly menacing More Than I Can Say. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Jon DeRosa catalog. Doesn’t Care is catchy and surprisingly wry; the album’s most theatrical song is To the Grave, a diptych that ends the album on an unexpectedly sympathetic if distantly angst-riddled note. An album like this raises the question of how many other Mike Marlins there might be out there who could be sitting on a similarly enticing collection of good songs from back in the day.

Henry Wagons Brings His Melbourne Menace to Joe’s Pub

Noir songwriter/bandleader Henry Wagons plays Joe’s Pub this Saturday night, March 2 at 9:30 PM. With his brooding baritone, Wagons’ fellow Australian Nick Cave is an obvious influence, but where Cave goes off into art-rock and Irish balladry, Wagons goes into vicious noir rock, like a more vengeful Mark Steiner. Wagons’ latest album Expecting Company? also has a similarly surreal, sardonic, irreverent gallows humor. As you might expect of a guy with a rakish persona, he likes to surround himself with women, in this case Patience Hodgson of the Grates and Sophia Brous representing for his musical hotbed of Melbourne along with Haligonian songstress Jenn Grant and the Dead Weather’s Alison Mosshart serving as sparring partner on several of these songs.

The opening track, Unwelcome Company sets the stage, a savage tango that explodes in a burst of drums and minor key guitar. Mosshart comes in for the uneasy mantra, “Everywhere I go they follow me;” as the song ends, there’s a nasty guitar solo half-buried in the mix that looks all the way back to Aussie garage-punk legends Radio Birdman.

The second cut, I’m In Love with Mary Magdalene begins as a ghostly faux madrigal over funeral organ and blends creepy vocal harmonies with macabre guitar twang while Wagons and Mosshart lament their unrequited lust. Give Me a Chance to Mend reminds of the country side of Jerry Teel, mixing warm pedal steel with wry honkytonk piano, while the rustically twisted family tale I Still Can’t Find Her evokes Tom Warnick & World’s Fair at their most surreal.

Wagons goes for an only slightly restrained Cramps-y menace on the ghoulabilly stomp A Hangman’s Work Is Never Done. He follows that with Give Me a Kiss, a country waltz so bizarre it’s irresistible, with its pinging Omnichord synth and coy, chirpy backing vocals. The album winds up with Marylou Two, Wagons reaching for a Willie Nelson ballad vibe and surprisingly hitting the target pretty head-on. But even in the quietest moments here, there’s a lingering unease: Wagons sounds like someone who’s always got a blunt instrument up his sleeve. The sedate confines of Joe’s Pub may be in for a rude shock when this guy hits the stage.

Tom Shaner’s Long-Overdue Solo Debut: Worth the Wait

For those who’ve followed Tom Shaner’s career since his days in the early zeros fronting Industrial Tepee – the great southwestern gothic rock band that should have been as famous as Calexico or Giant Sand but never was – his new album Ghost Songs, Waltzes and Rock n Roll is long overdue. Ironically, though billed to Shaner solo, it’s far more lush and richly arranged than anything he did with that band, in fact, the best thing he’s ever done. The music blends layers of jangly, twangy, spiky, occasionally searing electric and acoustic guitars over a nimble rhythm section, ornamented with deviously flickering keyboards, mandolin, banjo and the occasional wry electronic effect. Songwise, there are echoes of Steve Wynn, the Byrds, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave in its most pensive moments.

Shaner’s nonchalant, laid-back vocals are sort of a cross between Lou Reed and the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan. The songs’ lyrics are terse, cynical and clever: they’ll resonate especially with anyone who’s weathered the same storms as Shaner has during these past few years as the New York he came up in slid closer and closer to New Jersey. Although many of the songs have a dusky desert feel, a familiar urban milieu recurs throughout the album. That factors in heavily on the funniest song here, the deadpan, early Elvis Costello-ish Unstoppable Hipster, as well as the considerably more spare, haunting Downtown Has Done Damage, which reminds of the Church around 1986 or so.

Sinner’s Highway sets a surreal, sordidly Lynchian scene to snarling minor-key rock: a late-period Industrial Tepee tune, it reminds a lot of Steve Wynn, with a wry quote in the solo guitar outro. Another one from that era, Sister Satellite manages to be dreamy yet bracing as its layers of guitar mingle and then surge.Then Shaner evokes another well-known late 90s/early zeros band, White Hassle, with Forever Drug, spiced with tongue-in-cheek samples and hip-hop turntablism.

She Will Shine is crushingly caustic: over punchy, syncopated, Jayhawks-flavored rock, Shaner relates how a girl who couldn’t hack it in the big city is ostensibly leaving for better things in the country, but “when the lid is lifted, everything is shifted…her time is complete, the future is a one-way street.” Rosa Lee, a big concert favorite, works a more pensive, regretful vein.

Shaner pairs Foreverland, a creepy reggae song, with the nebulous, only slightly less creepy psych-folk anthem Silent Parade. Where Grief Becomes Grace, an echoey desert rock dirge, is as broodingly evocative as anything Giant Sand ever did. A cover of Tom Waits’ Cold Water picks up the pace with a gospel-fueled menace, black humor in full effect.

Only slightly less dark colors close the album. Everything Is Silver returns to a romping Elvis Costello vibe: it’s the opposite of what it seems. And My House is Green builds a moody acoustic Velvets ambience. But not everything here is as dark: there’s Sun Girl #2, with its lushly gentle Sunday Morning sway, and Streets of Galway, a lively Irish tune. One of the best albums of 2012, no question. Shaner plays the release show – assuming the subways are back up and running – at the Knitting Factory on Nov 7 at 8:30 PM.

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